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Restoration of drooping Fallingwater uncovers flaws amid genius

Saturday, December 08, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

It is, in a word, shocking.

Plastic sheaths the cantilever terraces and scaffolding surrounds the base of Fallingwater in Mill Run, Fayette County, where restoration has begun on Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece.


Graphic: Repairs to Fallingwater

No matter how much you're prepared intellectually for the restoration of Fallingwater, the sight of that iconic living room deconstructed still takes your breath away.

Furniture has been removed to the visitors' center cafe, now closed for the season, for conservation.

The flagstones that cover the living room and two flanking terraces -- more than 600 of them -- have been mapped, numbered, taken up and stacked inside three plastic sheds on the path from the visitors' center to the house.

Exposed for the first time since Fallingwater was completed in 1936 are three of the four main concrete beams that support the living room as it cantilevers over the waterfall.

They are by now the stuff of legend. Edgar Kaufmann's engineer thought the beams should have more reinforcing steel than Wright's engineers specified. It was Kaufmann's house; he won. Workers doubled the amount of one-inch-square bars in each beam from eight to 16. It wasn't enough. When they removed the wooden formwork supporting the first floor, the terrace sagged 44.5 millimeters -- about 1 3/4 inches.

Kaufmann recorded the terrace's movement periodically until his death in 1955, but between then and 1995 only one or two random measurements were taken. That was the year the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy hired Robert Silman Associates of New York to examine the obvious structural problems.

Silman found that the living room terrace had deflected as much as 7 inches and, without intervention, someday would fall into Bear Run.

"That was a sobering day, when we heard that from the engineers," said Sarah Beyer, Fallingwater's curator of education, at the end of a recent Hard Hat Restoration Tour.

At $50 per person, the tour isn't cheap (regular weekend tours are $15) but it does present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the house at a critical moment in its history -- and support its renewal.

The first thing you notice is that Fallingwater is under wraps, its first-floor terraces covered with slanting roofs of translucent plastic sheeting to protect the work crews.

With the living room inaccessible, entrance now is through the back door and into the kitchen. Tours are led into the dining area of the living room, where they're separated from the work area by a plywood and Plexiglas partition that lets them look but not touch -- or fall through the grid of concrete beams and wood joists.

For 18 months after he was hired, Silman took measurements from electronic monitors that showed the terraces were still sagging and their cracks still widening.

The next step was to examine the structure of the house to see how much it conformed to Wright's drawings. Using radar, ultrasound and magnetic detection, they plumbed the interiors of the beams, floors and parapets to verify the number, size and location of the reinforcing bars in the cantilever beams and other structural elements.

Analysis showed that the living room cantilever supports not only itself but the one above it -- the master terrace that leads from the master bedroom and rests on the living room's steel window frames. To stop the deflection, Silman determined there was only one pragmatic solution: Strengthen three of the four concrete beams under the living room with a post-tensioning system that will hold them tautly in place. High-strength steel cables will be added along each side of the beams, with one end anchored in new concrete blocks attached to the beams and the other end fed through a hole drilled through the outside wall of the living room.

Hydraulic jacks will gradually tighten the cables and then permanently anchor them, stopping the deflection. The engineers won't try to correct it; at this point that would only cause more problems. Just as importantly, the deflection will continue to tell, at a glance, the 20th-century history of the house.

In addition to making other structural repairs, workers also are waterproofing the flat-roofed house. Water damage is especially evident in the guest bathroom, where the cork walls are stained and concrete is spalling.

The house that cost $155,000 to build will take $11.5 million to restore, a figure that also includes water treatment, sewage and landscape improvements to be done over the next few years. Restoration of the house will be completed next year.

Site changes, designed to enhance the visitors' experience, include creating a new trail to provide a bird's-eye view overlooking the house from across Bear Run, accessed by a boardwalk hugging the hillside.

The $50 restoration tour is limited, and advance reservations are necessary. Students age 9 and over pay $20. Tours are offered Fridays through Sundays during weekends in December and the week of Dec. 26-31, after which the house will close for the season. To schedule a tour, call 724-329-8501.

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